December 09, 2019
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    The fight to keep the internet free and open for everyone

    November 11, 2019

    n 2013, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg released a 10-page white paper outlining his new vision, titled “Is Connectivity a Human Right?”. It contained “a rough proposal for how we can connect the next five billion people”, with help from a consortium of tech companies christened Internet.org. Not only did Zuckerberg’s plan include broadening access to existing telecommunications networks, it even covered developing new technologies like solar-powered drones that would loiter over remote areas, beaming data connections to the people below.

    Half the world’s population lives without a reliable internet connection, which limits their access to education, financial services, political engagement, free expression, and more. Among them is Salim Azim Assani, co-founder of WenakLabs, a digital hub in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. In 2008, government authorities shut down access to social media like Facebook and Twitter, citing the spread of religious extremism. The services remained offline for 16 months.

    “We lost money, and some of our customers, because of the internet block,” says Assani. “Some of our customers cancelled their contracts because they think it is not a good moment to use social media. Working with artists or musicians, they can’t have a lot of views because a lot of people don’t know how to use VPNs, or because VPNs are not easy for them to use.”

    Fifty years after the first computers were laced into an internet, and 30 years since the World Wide Web was built on top of this “network of networks”, the free and open online world envisioned by early pioneers is under attack. In the last few years, partial cuts and even total blackouts have been reported in India, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq.

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    Joshua Franco is deputy director of Amnesty Tech. While the organisation doesn’t comprehensively monitor the world for internet shutdowns, he says the practice is increasing. “In the west and central Africa region we found 12 cases of intentional mobile and internet cuts in 2017, up from 11 in 2016. In 2018, we had 20 in that region,” he says. “Our fear is that would continue to rise.”

    Typically, the justification for these cuts is to curb unrest: when Sri Lankan authorities cut access to social media in the wake of the 2019 Easter terror attacks, they said this was necessary to prevent the spread of misinformation and panic. “We look more at impact, because the motives are not always totally knowable,” says Franco. But he adds: “The coincidence around crucial public events, such as elections and protests, raise our suspicions that it’s a way of quelling free speech.”

    Salim Azim Assani (Credit: Getty Images)
    Salim Azim Assani was one businessman affected by a 16-month-long block of social media in Chad (Credit: Matene Israel/WenakLabs)

    Taking the internet offline is a crude measure, but other methods of shaping internet access can be just as dramatic. The Russian government, for example, is building a parallel internet that exists entirely within its own borders. Once complete, this will give the Russian authorities complete control over what users based in Russia can see and post online. And internet users in mainland China log on to one of the most heavily regulated online spaces in the world, where restrictions to foreign websites and services, active filtering of offending content and strict legal provisions for companies operating online combine in what is known as "The Great Firewall of China".

    And the trend continues even in more liberal nations. A copyright directive passed by the EU this year, known as Article 13, compels web operators to install filters that will automatically remove content deemed illegal. In the UK, the government has repeatedly asserted that it should be allowed to break the encryption that underlies everything from private messaging apps to online payments. And in the US, lawmakers have repeatedly tried to overturn net neutrality rules that ensure online services are treated equally.

    Young people have the right to open social media, to use the internet, and they have to use it to learn to do business – Salim Azim Assani
    Two years after launching Internet.org, Zuckerberg appeared before the UN General Assembly to reiterate that “the internet belongs to everyone”. He’s not alone in this view: reports from the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 and 2016 criticised internet restrictions as running afoul of international agreements on freedom of expression and information. Both times, they were widely reported as being a declaration that internet access itself was a human right.

    “The internet is a human right,” agrees Assani, who also runs a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting digital services in Chad. “Young people have the right to open social media, to use the internet, and they have to use it to learn to do business. All people have the right to use the internet.”

    Vint Cerf doesn’t agree. His opinion ought to count for something: as the co-developer of the TCP/IP protocol, he’s known as one of the “fathers of the internet”. Following the 2011 UN report, he wrote an editorial in the New York Times dismissing the notion that internet access was a human right.

    Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in 2016 (Credit: Getty Images)
    Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has appeared before the UN to state that the internet "belongs to everyone" (Credit: Getty Images)

    Cerf posited that as a technology, the internet was an enabler of rights, and confusing the two would lead to us valuing the wrong things. “At one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living,” Cerf wrote. “But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse.” The internet was a means to an end, and not the end itself.

    Behind the headlines, this is the position of the UN Human Rights Council as well. The reports issued in 2011 and 2016 highlighted the essential nature of the internet in enabling people to exercise their freedom of expression, opinion and information, but they stopped short of declaring access to a free and open internet a human right in itself.

    Facebook community standards or company policies cannot replace the UN Declaration on Human Rights – Joshua Franco
    Indeed, an internet that operates for the benefit of all necessarily comes with some restrictions. “It’s not illegal to restrict human rights in key situations,” says Franco. To spin a phrase, the right to free expression online doesn’t necessarily extend to shouting “fire” in a crowded chatroom.

    For decades, regulators have been playing catch up with the web, introducing laws to curtail the spread of pirated music, drug selling, child pornography, terrorist propaganda, hate speech, and more. But the problem with a network of billions is that everyone has their own idea of what illegitimate content is. This isn’t just a discussion for different nations, but also for the services that operate online. “Facebook community standards or company policies cannot replace the UN Declaration on Human Rights,” says Franco.

    Protest in Sudan 2019 (Credit: Getty Images)
    Sudan is one African country where access to the internet was cut off during protests in April 2019 (Credit: Getty Images)

    Asserting our internet rights, then, means taking a proactive stance. The World Wide Web Foundation is a non-profit which aims to defend freedoms online. At the Internet Governance Forum in Berlin this November, it will launch its Contract for the Web. “It’s been really challenging for policy makers to come to terms with what is the web for,” says Emily Sharpe, policy director of the Web Foundation. “The Contract for the Web is about making sure the web is empowering and accessible to everyone.”

    The document asserts the principles of a free, open, and inclusive web, and forms a manifesto for everyone aiming to make that vision a reality. Governments that sign up to the contract will pledge to connect everyone equally, keep the internet online, and respect citizens privacy. Companies can promise the same, as well as agreeing to develop technologies that “support the best in humanity and challenge the worst”. Individual citizens, too, can sign up and agree to create, collaborate, build communities and defend the online space.

    In the six years since Zuckerberg launched Internet.org, progress to bring the world online has been faltering
    “In the years since it was created, we’ve seen the web advance human rights,” says Sharpe. But she notes that as with most technologies, the initial enthusiasm surrounding the innovation often overlooks potential for damage that it can pose. She hopes that the contract will guide policy makers in creating regulations that balance the need to mitigate online harms with the fulfilment of human rights on the web.

    “Concepts such as hate speech are frequently abused,” says Franco. “This is not to mean hate speech isn’t real – we’ve documented how violence against women drives them out of the public sphere and limits freedom of expression – but it is something governments seize on for those criticising them, and other forms of protected speech.”

    Cubans on smartphones (Credit: Getty Images)
    While the internet continues to dominate world economies, there are still billions without access to it (Credit: Getty Images)

    In the six years since Zuckerberg launched Internet.org, progress to bring the world online has been faltering. Telecoms companies were reluctant to move people onto data plans where existing contracts for text messaging and voice calls were more profitable. And in 2018, Facebook quietly grounded its Aquila project for internet drones.

    As such, there are still billions of people around the world who are not connected to the internet. But in our efforts to bring them online, we shouldn’t lose sight of what kind of internet we’re hoping to connect them to. It’s not enough to connect the world: we have to work hard to ensure that there is a web worth connecting to.

    --

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    In North Macedonia, there’s a small industry of websites publishing misleading and inflammatory political articles targeted at US readers. Simon Oxenham meets a woman who worked there.
    Author image
    By Simon Oxenham
    29th May 2019
    I

    If you ignored the content, the typical day of a “fake news” writer would seem like any office job. Every morning, Tamara would open her laptop to a fresh email with a link to a spreadsheet. This document contained eight stories based on the other side of the world from her, in the US. The spreadsheet would also contain eight deadlines, each set just a few hours later. Her job was to rewrite each story before her deadline.

    Tamara's job was to churn out semi-plagiarised copies of articles originally published on US extreme right-wing publications
    The difference? Tamara was rewriting fabricated or misleading articles for two major copycat websites based in North Macedonia targeting US readers. Her job was to churn out semi-plagiarised copies of articles originally published on US extreme right-wing publications, so that her boss could serve them back to unsuspecting Americans thousands of miles away.

    I spoke with Tamara in late 2018 in a café in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. Over the course of three days, she told me in detail about a job she had done for nine months. While her perspective can only ever be that of a single employee, her story reveals the reality of what it was like to work inside these sites.

    Tamara wishes to remain anonymous, so to protect her identity, her name and those of the individuals she worked with have been changed. This article also contains some strong language.

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    One day in April 2017, Tamara received a phone call from a friend. “I know you are doing nothing, here is a way to do something and make money and still not leave the house,” her friend had said. “You are good in politics and you are good at your English, so would you like to work on news sites?”

    “I said ‘Yeah, why not’,” Tamara recalls.

    The next step was a video call with “Marco”, a young man with an awkward manner and a job offer.

     

    A digital 'gold rush' came to Veles, according to many reports (Credit: Robin Willows-Rough)

    “When I got the call and Marco explained what kind of news site it is, that’s the moment I realised I was going to work for fake news,” Tamara says.

    Over the next few video meetings, Marco would share his screen and show her how to post articles to his website and use Photoshop to edit images. “He was quite shy and so weird,” Tamara says. “Maybe because I was older than him and working for him, he was uncomfortable with this relationship, his being my boss”. She was in her mid-20s, while Marco had barely turned 20 when she joined his team.

    I believe they still have the worst articles
    It would be another two months before she met Marco face-to-face. She would regularly make the short drive to the town of Veles, where Marco would hand her an envelope of cash.

    Tamara, who describes herself as a liberal, was horrified by the content of the articles she had to rewrite. “I believe they still have the worst articles,” she says, opening a new tab on her laptop, and navigating to a website from which she would regularly copy content. I watched her typing in the search box. “As you can see I just typed ‘Muslim attacks’ and there are so many articles about Muslims attacking people. Many of these I believe are not even true, they are just making it up.” This one website alone listed almost 100 pages of search results for that query. On closer inspection, the articles would contain glaring inaccuracies and images taken from different events entirely. Tamara was told to simply find images using Google to attach to the articles she published.

     

    A sign on the road into Veles, a hub of 'fake news' (Credit: Simon Oxenham)

    Yet Tamara’s experience also highlights the limitations of the term “fake news”, and why the reality of what these sites publish is much more pernicious. Much of what she produced was misinformation based on real events, written in a way to provoke fear and anger among its readers. In the aggregate, the stories gave a false, skewed view of the world, playing to people’s prejudices.

    “That thing happened, the people were there, the place was there. So it was never fake stories” in the sense of fabricating every detail. “It was propaganda and brainwashing in the way of telling the story,” says Tamara.

    Marco ran two sites, which Tamara told me had more than two million Facebook followers combined
    Tamara’s job was to rewrite the original US articles so that they couldn’t be detected as plagiarised text, as well as making them more compact and even more likely to be shared on social media, generating Google ad revenue for Marco’s site. A similar fake news site based out of Veles with around a million Facebook likes has been claimed by its owner to be able to make upwards of $2,000 per day in an interview with CNN. Marco ran two sites, which Tamara told me had more than two million Facebook followers combined.

    Asked if constantly viewing such a vast amount of this content affected her, Tamara describes mixed feelings. “The whole time I was typing and writing these stories, I was always thinking ‘Oh my God, who would believe this kind of garbage? How uneducated, how low intelligence do you have to be just to read them’. It’s hard to read these articles. They are long, maybe 1,000 words and the whole article maybe contains two sentences of news and after that everything is just insults. It’s hard to read. It’s not pleasant,” Tamara says.

    Then she tells me something I don’t expect. “I would usually shorten these kinds of articles and just skip the parts I don’t want to write. Or maybe put something that I want to be there,” she says, laughing. “For example, if they are attacking, let’s say, Muslims all the time, I would get so furious about all their attacking that I would cut all of the bullshit and maybe put something nice at the end that the boss wouldn’t notice because he wouldn’t read all the articles all the time. It would ease the pain, my pain”. I ask her for an example. “Oh something like ‘and at the end of the day, everybody is equal’. Something like this in the context of the article.”

     

    A young girl sits outside a bank in Veles (Credit: Getty Images)

    Was she influenced by the content? After all, some studies have suggested that simply repeating false statements leads people to believe in them. “I was aware that I was writing a lot of stories about Muslims, and how they want to spread their own propaganda and want everyone to live by their rules and things like this, and one time I found myself when I was out thinking something of this kind of nature. So I was like, ‘Wow’. Subconsciously it influenced me somehow, this propaganda, because no one is immune to this stuff if you are constantly exposed to it. It was a good thing that I caught it because it’s not my opinion.”

    While writing the stories, the fear that was in these stories was in me as well
    She didn’t change her opinions, she says. But something else happened. “I didn’t change my views, I didn’t change my beliefs but I found myself feeling the fear that they were trying to insert into the people in America. While writing the stories, the fear that was in these stories was in me as well. When I became aware of this, it all stopped.”

    How did Tamara cope with writing hateful content every day? “I try to split myself and my own beliefs from the stuff I was writing. So I tried to stay as out of it as I can. I just saw it as writing words. I tried not to think about writing propaganda. My take was that if people are stupid enough to believe these stories, maybe they deserve this. If they think this is the truth, then maybe they deserve this as a way of punishment.”

     

    An abandoned swimming pool in Veles (Credit: Robin Willows-Rough)

    When I ask how she detached herself, she explains, “It’s quite easy if you are aware that the content you are writing is not true; it’s only a way of making money. For example many people do things in their jobs that they don’t feel like doing because their manager told them to do it, so this was it, just doing something and not letting it touch my personality. It was just mechanics, using my brain and my body, my fingers, to deliver this task.”

    Tamara says that her own political views are actually the complete opposite of the views espoused by the site. I ask her if there was any chance that the people who originally wrote the stories believed what they were writing. On this, she is adamant. “No, no, no, no. To even make up an article like this, you have to be very aware of what you are writing. This can’t come out of stupidity… I don’t think they believe in the stories they are writing, they know it is fake news, they know they are producing a lie. How delusional do you have to be to think that this is real?”

    Veles is a small, decaying town, littered with abandoned factories and amenities
    Marco’s website is far from alone. In 2016, just a week before the US presidential election, Buzzfeed revealed that more than 140 “fake news” US politics websites were run out of Veles, the home of Marco’s site. Veles is a small, decaying town, littered with dormant factories and run-down amenities such as an abandoned swimming pool – yet the teens who run these sites claimed to earn thousands of US dollars per month or even several thousand dollars per day on a good day. Tamara, however, didn’t make such a princely sum. She was paid 3 euros per post, amounting to a mere 24 euros per day. That’s not much to some, but triple what she might have earned doing a job locally.

    There is evidence that these pages had a real impact. In the final three months of the 2016 US Presidential race, fake or “hyperpartisan” news sites overtook mainstream news producers in their share of the top 20 election stories being shared on Facebook, according to a Buzzfeed News analysis.

    In December 2017, Facebook banned several fake news pages from its website, including Marco’s. “I was working that day. When the Facebook pages got shut down I tried to write to him on [Facebook] Messenger. His [personal] page was also shut down, so I called him and he was pretty shook up [sic]”. After that they had no more communication, until last summer, when Tamara received a phone call from Marco asking if she wanted to write for another website. She declined.

     

    The activity in Veles has brought the attention of the world's media (Credit: Robin Willows-Rough)

    Who are the real instigators behind these websites? Until recently it has been widely believed that the fake news websites operated out of North Macedonia emerged spontaneously from local teenagers capitalising on the digital gold rush that emerged out of the carnival of the 2016 US Presidential race.

    Newer evidence, however, suggests that this may not be the case. According to Buzzfeed News, “patient zero” was allegedly Macedonian media lawyer Trajche Arsov, who worked with a pair of high-profile US partners, including Paris Wade, a Republican candidate who recently ran for the Nevada State Assembly. The Buzzfeed story found that Arsov registered the domain of the first US politics site in Veles, USAPoliticsToday.com, on 23 September 2015. This may have set off the chain reaction in Veles that led to hundreds of sites, including Marco’s. This report contradicts the dominant narrative that the rash of fake news and propaganda sites operating out of the town was solely the work of teenagers seeking to cash in on Trump hysteria. While this may have become true by the end, the phenomenon in Veles didn’t begin this way.

    Tamara’s story doesn’t shed much light on the question of outside backing; however, it does challenge the narrative that all the young people working for these prolific websites were doing so for a huge pay cheque. If her case is anything to go on, the young people writing the content for these sites were doing so for only a small fraction of the profits.

    As I said goodbye to Tamara and drove into the night on the long road home through North Macedonia’s neighbouring Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia, I was struck by a bitter irony. Here is a region, the Balkans, that in living memory has been shaped and scarred by divisions between its people. The sad truth is that now it has also become a home for websites that fuel disharmony and polarisation elsewhere – this time, thousands of miles away in the US.

     

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